Category Archives: Writing workshop

Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

nephele_tempestThanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops

Poets & Writers' listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Poets & Writers’ listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Late-winter and early-spring are a time for hunkering in from the cold or taking refuge beneath tropical sun. We’re not yet thinking of summer.

But, for writers wanting to attend summer writing conferences or workshops, we are, in fact, in the thick of writing conference application season.

Rather than wait for this week’s Friday Links, today’s post will feature links to several of the best summer writing conferences — and also hashtag for following tweets from next week’s Associated Writing Programs Conference in Boston.

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2 Great Publishing Conferences:

  • #AWP13: It’s time, folks! March 6th-9th, AWP 2013 (Associated Writing Programs’ winter conference) will be off and running in Boston. In recent years, Twitter hashtags have added an entirely new, lively component to conference participation. If you are attending the conference, use the hashtag #AWP2013 to coordinate with other writers, editors, agents, etc., there with you, and to share insights from the conference. For those of us not attending? Become a vicarious conference participant by following the hashtag throughout the weekend.  You’ll be privy to great quotes from workshops, themes that arise and more. It’s a great way to discover interesting people to follow. [Also, here is the website link for the AWP Conference.]
  • Grub Street Muse & Marketplace 2013  was on my 2013 “wish list” as I swear it seemed that every single human involved in writing and publishing was there last May. When I workshopped with Ann Hood, she was flying out to be at Grub Street the next morning, and the weekend was full of #Muse2012 tweets from writers, editors, agents, publishers, digital content folks — you name it. The Muse is May 3rd-5th in Boston; overviews and registration are available online.

Renowned Summer Workshops:

Here are 3 of the most prominent summer workshops. As they are competitive to apply to, consider checking out forums discussing the process by following a link to the Speakeasy forum under Poets & Writers near the end of this post.

  • Bread Loaf Writers Conference: March 1st is the deadline to apply for Bread Loaf Writers Conference held in Vermont August 14-24. If you’ve never been to Bread Loaf, take the time to read about it, as it has one of the oldest traditions for literary conferences in the country, dating back to 1926. Numerous famed writers have participated as attendees before gaining fame and as workshop leaders. Admissions are competitive, so send your best work. If the application date passed you, check out the new Bread Loaf in Sicily workshop, scheduled for September 15-21.
  • Tin House Writer’s Workshop has steadily gained national recognition as one of the foremost summer conferences, attracting fabulous faculty and participants. The workshop is held July 14-21 at Reed College in Portland, OR. The link takes you to the admissions page; use the site menu for lists of faculty and more description. No deadline is posted, although applications are currently being reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis; admission is competitive, so apply early.
  • Sewanee Writers’ Conference  is a by-admission summer conference with a tradition for excellence in the faculty, workshops and participating writers. (Sewanee and Bread Loaf often share faculty in common; attending writers have described Bread Loaf as having a more structured schedule and being slightly more intense.) The conference is held July 23rd-August 4th at Sewanee – the University of the South, in Tennessee. Applications are being accepted Jan. 15th-April 15th.
  • Aspen Summer Words has been on my radar as the only workshop or conference I could find where Colum McCann has taught. Beyond this, search through the site to find clips from speakers and other great insight into the value of Aspen’s programs, which include both juried and non-juried summer programs (June 16-21) and winter programs.

More Great Summer Conferences and Workshops:

To Find Other Conferences or Workshops:

Do not underestimate the value of regional workshops and conferences in your area. To locate more conferences, either by region or by interest, check out these data bases:

  • AWP Directory of Conferences: use this customizable search to find conferences or workshops to meet your needs
  • Poets & Writers magazine: the link at left takes you to a data base of conferences and residencies on P&W’s site. Or, join conversations in the Speakeasy forum, where writers share their wisdom about the application process and what they gained from attending most national conferences.

If Not Summer, Then Next Year:

If summer is not your time for workshopping, then watch for more deadlines in the fall for fabulous conferences and workshops held over the winter. I’ll include one to watch as it unfolds in March:

  • Sirenland: If you have the liberty to take off to beautiful Positano, Italy (one of my favorite places), here’s one to consider applying to for next year. Sirenland 2013 takes place March 17-23, with applications accepted in the fall. The conference was established by Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief, and editor of One Story). If you’re curious, check for a #sirenland hashtag during the conference week.

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How About You?

What conferences or workshops have you considered attending? Which have you attended in the past?

Share your interests or experience in the comments, or share links to your own posts about conferences. It’s especially helpful to other readers if you can share advice about admissions, experience from attending, the names of workshop leaders you’d recommend, or the names of local workshops you’ve attended and would recommend.

For example, read this great 3-part series on writing workshops posted by writer Gerry Wilson, beginning with: Workshop Primer Part 1: What, Where & Why?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Coming tomorrow: My Reading List: Winter 2013

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Friday Links 01.18.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the third week of January. For me, it has been a week busy with the beginning of a new semester, including getting to work on production of my students’ annual literary magazine. I’ve also been thrilled with some of the work coming out on my novel draft, Wake (shared last Saturday, here).

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!

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George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

Deputy Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Joel Lovell, writes a fascinating discussion with George Saunders (“more or less universally regarded as a genius”), which opens with an amazing reflection on the awareness that comes from a recent proximity to death — and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk around with that kind of awareness all the time.

Writing About What Haunts Us

Thanks to Gerry Wilson for sharing the link to this New York Times essay by Peter Orner — whose images of confession and truth and ensuing emotion really do haunt. Together with the Saunders interview, these two articles made for a great reading morning.

Breaking Down Story Structure: MORNING GLORY Act One

Thanks go to Sarah Turnbull for sharing this link.  As I drafted Wake, through much of 2012 the posts I shared had to do with developing character. But, at some point, as your novel draft takes shape, what you are looking for is an understanding of the story line, and talk turns to analyzing plot. This link is to Lydia Sharp’s post which demonstrates story structure by breaking the first act of a movie into opening, inciting incident, catalyst, etc. The expression “instinctively preserves her self-concept” perfectly triggered my morning writing, as I closed a gap in understanding of my character’s early motivation.

Creative Writing: A Master Class

Gee, you know what I just did? Subscribed to a series of free masterclasses with Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, Rita Dove and more, via iTunes! The Creative Writing: A Master Class link takes you to the full list of courses offered via iTunes Academy of Achievement. Each “course” is an audio or video podcast on craft from some of the masters of fiction, poetry and memoir. For me, these are a welcome download for listening in the car or when too tired for reading before sleep, or as a morning warm-up. For a more complete summary: I first read about this in Fordham MFA candidate Josh Jones’ post on Open Culture.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Going on this month:

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Writing Character: Challenge of the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 1

Adapted fr a picture taken of me with my best friend (cropped, in adaptation) by his mother on the first day of 2nd grade. In many ways, characters are thinly disguised versions of the writer. Sometimes that grants vivid authenticity. Sometimes, not so much. (c. Elissa Field; repro w written permission)

Twice in previous articles, I mentioned the challenge of writing the character most like oneself, and it’s time I give the intended explanation.

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Where the idea for the post arose:

Along with posts on  internal and external conflict and character emotion, the impetus for this article arose from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May.

Among stories I’ve worked on in the past, I knew who my trickiest, most elusive or least successful characters were, but hadn’t noticed a pattern until an offhand comment from Ann. In responding to another writer’s manuscript in workshop, she observed that the flattest characters we write are sometimes those most like ourselves.  A little bell went off inside as I realized it was these characters I wrote with the least interest.

In conversations with fellow writers shortly after, over and over they agreed, which provoked need to tie together Hood’s advice with other a-ha’s on how to bring these characters to life.

Today’s post, part 1, will define why this is a challenge. Part 2 of the series will offer revision strategies.

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First, what does that mean: “most like myself”? 

In discussing this with friends, many are writing fiction from an autobiographical story, so have a character who is literally modeled from themselves.  Others might write themselves as a character thrown into unfamiliar or fantastical settings as if the stories were vicarious lives.  Hood herself used the example of writing her novel, The Knitting Circle, which she wrote in response to grief overthe death of her daughter.  I don’t write autobiographically, but each story seems to have a character — not always the protagonist — who is most invested with my own history.  She is my gender, and may have a lifestyle, profession, interests, roots or age drawn from my own.

Each of these is an example of a character drawn from the author’s own identity.

But isn’t that what it means, to “write what you know”?

Obviously, the odd snippets drawn from our lives can set our work apart.  Such details give our work texture and voice and authenticity.  One of my favorites to write was the opening lines of a novel draft where the character has a memory of running from the shoreline carrying a minnow cupped in her hands as a girl.  I like the immediate connection to childhood and nature, and it was perfect metaphor to the mystery of the story.

Drawing on actual experience creates writing infused with and anchored in something vivid.  That’s why we do it.  That effective use of authorial experience is not the challenge this article addresses.

Yet writing from self — not just experience — develops its own challenge.

In the workshop with Hood and in conversation with writing friends, the challenge arose that characters written based on ourselves sometimes feel — at least in early drafts — flat.

In some cases the writer is aware of it.  In other cases, it was something reported back from beta readers or agents.  The character might be written accurately, but wasn’t engaging or dynamic.  They were lifeless or invisible or downright annoying or defensive or without motivation.

Hood is known for teaching nonfiction and memoir, and her fiction is often rooted in personal experience.  During our workshop, in responding to one writer’s manuscript, she gave example of the process she went through in revising one of her novels.

Making a connection to the weakness she addressed in her revisions and the manuscript at hand, she said: characters telling our own story “can suffer from attachment to reality.”  The problem, she said, is that reality often comes without the fullness and resonance of story.

In my experience, I was surprised to notice authorial blindness might have me writing vivid factual details of the character’s life, yet her emotions and motivation remain unrealized or unengaging, in the same way that you could have a vivid, accurate list of ingredients for the grocery store, yet that is not the same as visualizing a fully-prepared dinner laid out for Thanksgiving.

Like shaving or putting lipstick on without a mirror, you know where you are, but not quite how to see yourself — or therefore reveal yourself to a reader — without perspective.

Some examples:

My own weakness is that the character most like myself is often the one I am least curious about.  I am excited getting to know this shady, paramilitary character in my draft, Wake, or the Cuban-exile, artist mother in Breathing Water, or the fastidious doctor surrounded by monkeys in another draft.  The daughter or girlfriend character?  Not so much.  It’s not that I don’t like her, but, well, I sort of forget to write her. Raised to be a good, self-deprecating American, I might even tend to write her vaguely annoying.

Sometimes — especially if I was writing into unfamiliar territory — this character provided my own entry point into the story, the point at which I bridge my own knowledge or culture or personality, to the less familiar places and culture and experiences I might take the story and characters. The resulting character revealed my vulnerability and initial lack of insight, without yet contributing the meaning such a character was intended to offer.

Hood’s basic advice:

On a most basic level, Ann Hood said the key to writing characters based on the writer is for the writer to create authorial distance.

Begin with the value of your experience, but then create distance by changing key elements through the process of asking, “What if?”  Create differences between the character and self so that you start to feel that curiosity, start to imagine that character as someone fully fledged and outside yourself.

Having bashed my own characters to provide examples, I should offer one I’ve written where I saw Hood’s advice working.  I feel myself closely identified with the protagonist of my story Jar of Teeth.  Beginning with truths from my own life, this character had once marched on Washington for Roe v. Wade (as I once did) and made it through college and dating years never unwittingly pregnant and therefore breathed a sight of relief at never having had to use the rights of Roe v. Wade (also true).  But what if she were older than myself, living in a different city, and with a job cleaning the taxidermied exhibits in a museum? And what if her child were not my young sons but a college aged daughter, and what if that daughter was now asking her to pay to avert her own sudden emergency? Without giving away the whole story, I can say that I see this character as more three dimensional, being outside myself, than if I were imagining her from the inside-out.

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Can you share an example of a character that challenges you and may fit this pattern?  Does Hood’s advice ring true for you?  Or what other advice have you encountered?

Want more on this topic?

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October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? I’ve previously shared these two:

But Tuesday I came across another blog with a challenge near to my goals this year: character motivation.

In her 10/14 post, “Making Motivation Matter,” Writerlious blogger E. B. Pike shares insights and an exercise she gained from a Writers Block conference she attended in Louisville. Follow link to her post to read her full explanation of the challenge as presented to her in a workshop. I can’t resist trying it here.

The challenge (quoted from the Writerlious blog):

1.) Write down your character’s name

2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible

3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?

4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.

5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.

6.) You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

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Of all my characters, Michael Roonan is most likely to meet the bar of high stakes motivation. Let’s see:

  1. Michael Roonan.
  2. Roonan wants: the happiness his parents had.
  3. He cannot get what his parents had because of a tragedy he witnessed that caused him to take a life in self-defense, as a boy.  If he did not get over the tragedy, he would just grow up in isolation. Not yet a big stake.
  4. That violent act caused him to become alienated in fear.  He isolated himself to protect those around him but a loyal friend tried to rescue him.. Once the friend is involved, stakes are raised, as he is now focused on extricating the friend from guilt, beyond any hope of extricating himself.
  5. In an effort to correct the problem, he upheld his father’s paranoia about needing to protect the family and avoid violence. But the more he sought to avoid violence, the more he escalated it, and two members of his family are killed. Stakes raised twice: believing in his father’s integrity and lives lost.
  6. His involvement in violence is exonerated as “self-defense” — yet he becomes increasingly aware of his own flawed perceptions, so that his innocence or damnation hinges on whether his father’s values and paranoia were accurate. Stakes raised: loss of innocence, loss of faith, damnation. Against these, Roonan sees death as easy.
  7. At the moment Roonan judges himself damned, resigned to death, he is confronted by the unexpected birth of his own son — now faced once again with his original wish: for the simple happiness of family.

I’m not surprised to have full stakes for Roonan, but am curious to run the same test on the female protagonist, Carinne, as development of her character has been my focus in recent revisions:

  1. Carinne
  2. (Should I be honest and say I stalled out to even say what she wants?) Initially, for herself: love, acceptance.
  3. If she did not get love or acceptance for herself, she might just withdraw into herself. No big deal. She’s in company with half the planet, perhaps. Not yet a story.
  4. She then meets Michael Roonan. They are kindred in resignation to their individual isolation. Seeing it in each other, they fight to keep the other afloat. She begins to rebel against her own resignation, at the same time she becomes accomplice in his escape from the man pursuing him. She becomes a part of a mission to keep the man safe, which essentially parallels her own need to fight for herself. Story spark.
  5. She has fallen in love. There is the moment when things could turn and go well, but then Roonan is killed.  She believes he survived, but is told he died and she is sent out of the country.  At this point, it is interesting, but as far as her motivation, it’s still kind of “so what?” – she could move on with a new love, I suppose. He could be the exciting bad boy that got away – but not necessarily high stakes.
  6. She is pregnant and has a child (the first pages open with that child digging in her garden). She had been willing to give up on finding Roonan for herself, but won’t give up once it’s a matter of finding her son’s father. Stakes are raised the day he comes home asking who he’s supposed to take to the daddy party at nursery school. Ding!
  7. Once Roonan is found, the son’s need for his father to survive and be part of his life provokes the resolution, as living happily is at odds with the father’s need for atonement.

What a great exercise for identifying where motivation is clear and where it is still pedestrian.  I love romantic motivation, but am suspicious of it as the sole motivator, so had been questioning Carinne for some time. She is compelling, but not if her only motivation is loving Roonan.

What’s interesting in breaking it down is it pinpoints a truth I caught last spring: Carinne is not the real protagonist; the son is.  Carinne is essentially a stand-in for the son for much of the story.  While we might be moved by a love story, the son’s need for a father trumps the mother’s romantic motivation.  It is the son’s desire (and mother’s desire for his well being) that drives the story.  Once I hone in on that, how easy are the questions to answer.  What does the son want? A father. What will happen if he doesn’t get it? Parallel to the tragedy already modeled by the dad: questions of his manhood, his integrity, his identity, his worth. Resolution of that one desire addresses the needs and desires of his parents, as well.

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I applied Writerlious’s list to a finished draft, but a key point as it was presented to her in workshop is to take the time to define your characters and their motivation before starting to write.  For all those of you contemplating NaNoWriMo next month, this is perfect time to do just that!

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October is only halfway done! Jump in on one of these challenges, or share your own questions for developing story.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like minded bloggers!

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Novel Writing: Grace Paley — How Internal & External Conflict Build Story

I came away from my workshop with Ann Hood last month with a legal pad filled with notes covering much more than the workshop’s promised topic of “beginnings,” and I promised to share many of those insights, here. So far, this is unfolding in the order in which I apply them to my own writing, rather than any logic better suited to an audience, so apologies for that.  Today was meant to continue with Character (see links at the bottom, for prior posts), but instead responds to a single, powerful margin note on Conflict.

Story is Made Up of Two Conflicts

On our first workshop day — prior to questions, discussion or critiquing — Ann Hood began with a lecture on ten successful ways to start a novel or story, and pitfalls to avoid. The hour-plus lecture was equivalent to a jeweler passing us diamonds while digging through a cart to find gold, as the “minor” points Hood used as illustration were entire lessons in themselves.

Within context of another point, Ann made reference to a lecture or workshop she herself had attended with Grace Paley decades back, in which Paley declared that every story is made up of two conflicts: the external conflict (war, the need to get free, search for a lost possession, argument) and the internal conflict (fear, insecurity, memory, rage).  The climax occurs when those two conflicts converge.

Much is made of plot points, of the actions and events that make up scenes, building the story’s arc toward climax.  And a line is often drawn (particularly in attempts to define literary fiction versus commercial fiction) between stories that derive from internal, character-driven conflict, and those deriving from external conflict and action.  What I could not remember hearing before, although instantly believed and understood, was this idea that both conflicts are at play, in layered tandem within a work.  Certainly I’d given attention to both internal and external tensions in my work, but it was new to hear them described as separate and equally important storylines: that internal conflict had its storyline and external conflict had its storyline, and that their related tensions and ultimate collision is what builds the depth, suspense and resolution in a story.

I immediately applied this to question my novel-in-progress, Wake. The draft is just now reaching a fully fledged form, and Paley’s standard provided the first clear questions I asked to define the structure I intended, and whether it was succeeding.

What is the external conflict? 

In Wake’s case, the external conflict is the search to discover if the ‘fatherless’ boy’s father is actually alive, and reunite them.  Saving the father’s life involves solving the mystery of whether he’d committed a crime during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  The search for the father is what propels the initial story, and the question of the father’s survival runs in essential opposition to the son’s need to have them all live happily as a family.  Side conflicts cause obstacles and tension, but this is the central conflict.

Oddly, the value of workshops or peer feedback is that, until being asked the question, I’d never recognized this was the actual conflict.  In my mind, Wake began as a love story and I was, well, rooting for the girl to get her guy back.  But I’d suspected for awhile that romantic love is not the true conflict.  It was the boy.  It was the crime.  It was the question whether the father would live.

What is the internal conflict?

You won’t find mention of Paley’s differentiation between internal and external conflict in Ann Hood’s book, Creating Character Emotions , but Hood’s discussion on page 11 of the range of emotions a character progresses through in the course of a novel offers insight into internal conflict.

Hood makes the point that characters develop through “a range of emotion, that [gives] them depth and complexity.”  She uses one of her own characters to show that characters progress or mature, from one emotion to another in the course of a novel.

In her example, the character starts as unhappy.  Then, “She moves from hope and excitement to loneliness and even despair before she matures emotionally,” ultimately reaching resignation.

Earlier, Hood portrayed the same character as moving into a stage of jealousy, noting that each emotion has its own point of maturity: she could not become jealous until she had felt hope, nor could she reach resolution without passing through that moment of jealousy.  Hood describes each emotion a character struggles with as “one step on an emotional ladder” that “characters should climb, emotional rung by emotional rung.”

Progressing through those emotions to resolve a single internal question (fear, desire, guilt) would be one way to explain internal conflict.

In my novel-in-progress, I thought the internal conflict was the longing of the female character to reunite with the lost lover — but isolating the external conflict, above, helped me refine this.  Love may motivate her, but the real internal motivation is the desire for the son to have his father, and this is in direct conflict with the father’s internal struggle with guilt. While the external conflict asks, “Will the father live?” the father himself asks should he be allowed to live, as his hidden guilt (for a crime other than what he was accused of) will not allow him to share in the happy-ever-after he has denied someone else.

Where external and internal conflicts converge = climax

In Wake, the two conflicts converge when the external world refuses to find the male character guilty of a crime. His inner guilt surfaces and must be resolved, pressing resolution of his inner (and external) mystery.

As you read this, the examples from my work may or may not be meaningful, but what’s worth saying is how much more clear the story’s organization became after naming the external and internal conflict.  Both conflicts could be seen mapping naturally like veins through existing scenes, clear where they converged, and how that convergence located the resolution.  It became clear where the story should start, how much was needed to get into the action, when certain information should be divulged, and where the story would end.  Identifying how resolution hangs on the male character’s inner conflict confirmed opening lines I’d just written, which plant the seed on the first page that he believes “memory is fickle” and is certain of his own guilt.

The idea of internal conflict as rungs on an emotional ladder has helped me clarify the internal journey the male character goes through — particularly that the emotion he is experiencing or demonstrating in each scene is a progression of maturing experience.  I might have been attempting to portray him ‘consistently’ in earlier drafts, but now see where his internal storyline would have him confused, then resigned, then hopeful, then dutiful, then penitent, etc. The clarity of this has rendered more vivid scenes, and provoked different interactions than I was originally imagining with the characters around him, including his memory of a single moment of fury (which I wrote about in my last post).

For all that “clarity,” the work is still messy, at the moment. I’ve had some great writing days, but must confess frustration the past couple days while rereading a large patch that was much less finished than I hoped…  So I post this with well wishes for all of you and your writing.  I will clearly be busy with it, myself.

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What do you think?

I’d love to hear questions or your insights in the Comments.

Thanks to Gerry Wilson, who replied to the last post asking about Hood’s advice on writing characters most like oneself.  I’m getting through the stretch of notes that provoked this post, and hope to have that one up next.

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Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon  Powells    Indiebound.org

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Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Writing Character, Writing workshop

Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy

Notes of scene and personality of my character, scribbled in the margins while reading Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.

My writing hours are all about budgeted time — hours or whole days declared for fiction, versus blocks of time commanded by the kids, teaching writing, client work, and the daily grind.  While teaching usually yields hours every day for me to write, the last two weeks were forfeited almost entirely to the end of the school year.  As Friday was finally the last day of school, it was interesting to see what writing work I would land on, in my first days of freedom.

My main goal for summer’s longer hours focuses on the two novels I am revising

That work craves larger blocks of hours for rereading drafts. I last left off rereading the more finished draft, Breathing Water, needing to decide between two voice options, then delete some random chunks in the middle, and fix any broken transitions. The second novel, Wake, is still working its way to becoming a first, full draft, so there is a veritable carnival of piecing together the written portions, replacing original ideas with newer scenes, now curious to chart plot points and track how effectively the story unfolds.  Revision to three short stories is also on target for the summer, as it has now been nearly 10 months since the last time I submitted work.

With those clear goals, you’d think the first free days would have been spent rereading those drafts.   There will be days that I do exactly that.

But today was messy. Messy to wake from the deluge of the past weeks: blearily checking email, voicemail and social media to see what was going on while I was otherwise occupied.   Messy to face the end of year mess my house becomes, with two wild monkeys disguised as sons co-habitating with me.

Messy to greet the twine-ball of pent up ideas my writing mind is today.  Apparently, a mind antsy with ideas, made to wait days to write, does not reach its turn ready to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Writing Character

Today’s writing job, instead, is to re-open the copy of Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions that I’ve been reading for the last week. I attended a workshop with Hood in Miami, last month, and bought the book from the Books & Books table at her reading.  While the workshop focused on novel beginnings, Hood’s lectures and responses to workshop questions shared a wealth of advice, both from her own experience and drawing on advice from dozens of other fabulous writers she has worked with or learned from in her roughly 30-year career.

In that vein, a single line of advice she offered (how to avoid writing flat characters, when writing those most like yourself), piqued my curiosity to read her book, which explores the full gamut of how to write characters with complex and authentic emotional resonance.

As I pick it up today, however, it is not to continue reading, but to face the rampant notes I scribbled wildly in the margins when reading last week. The picture accompanying this article is modest compared to the extended scene scrawled in the margins stretching 6 pages, between headings for “Anger” and “Confusion.”

Creating Emotional Characters:  Hood on Anger

Ann Hood begins the section on writing Anger with a quote from Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost: “‘Outrage, combining as it does shock, anger, reproach, and helplessness, is perhaps the most unmanageable, the most demoralizing of all the emotions.'”

Applying this to writing, Hood says, “Anger has so many gradations, so many levels, it is indeed — for the writer at least — one of the most unmanageable emotions.”

The paragraph following this lists words for the myriad levels of anger people experience (from pique, ire and exasperation, to madness, wrath and ire), with the warning that writers “tend to write anger as a flat or simple emotion, something closer to rage.”

By contrast, she says, “What makes the emotion so interesting — and challenging — is that it has many different levels.”

This idea that emotions are not one-dimensional, not predictable, but composed of complex gradations, unpredictability and even contradiction, is key to her advice throughout the book.

Messy Writing: Scribbled in the Margins

Roonan, the enigmatic male character in my draft, Wake, is confused, guilt-ridden, self-condemning, but rarely angry.  Still, a single line at the end of those three paragraphs in Hood’s chapter on Anger triggered a newly-revealing scene.  Roonan cascades through layers of emotion, through the tiers of family history he has previously misunderstood.

In one fit of messy scribbling, I tied together a series of tropes that have been disconnected references scattered through the story.  Roonan now connecting the inner (and reflexively external) conflicts signalled by his father’s racing motorcycle, his mother’s reaction over evidence of a death, memory of cleaning up to protect her, facing the day his brother died, discovering the bag of locks his father had left stashed beneath the bed… the guilt he lives with keying back to a single, fierce moment of fury, in which he sees himself fulfilling everything he had set out to avoid.

In my head, I understand each of these elements, but in this baby-draft, they were as-yet unwritten.  Magically, this dam of understanding burst in reaction to a single line at the end of those 3 paragraphs of Hood’s advice: “Sometimes anger leaves you sated.”

So it is that today’s job is to return to those notes, transcribing them into the “add-on” document I keep in Word as new material to be added into the draft. The work may remain messy after that, or may fall into a neat pattern of revision as planned.  The key, I’ve found, is to respect where my head is — most of all, to get all fresh material recorded, so not lost, before pushing myself back to revision.

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More on Character, and Hood’s Advice on Beginnings

I’ll share more of Hood’s advice on character, as well as advice on writing beginnings in coming posts.  If you have specific questions (such as Hood’s advice regarding the challenge of writing characters similar to yourself), let me know in the comments.

Want more?

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

 

Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon Powells    Indiebound.org

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